There's a good reason people don't exercise enough, eat healthy, or save for retirement, and a straightforward strategy can help them start

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  • Want to exercise more, eat better, and save for retirement? Punish yourself for bad habits immediately, instead of waiting for future consequences.
  • That's according to James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits."
  • For example, you might recruit an accountability partner who will think you're untrustworthy if you don't show up to a workout. Or, you might sign a "habit contract" along with important people in your life.

I don't exercise nearly enough.

At the end of the workday, I'm able to effectively ignore the possibility of being weak and withered 50 years from now (or sooner); but what I can't ignore is how comfortable my couch is.

That is to say, I'm human. I have a hard time visualizing bad things happening to me in the future, and changing my behavior accordingly.

Read more: 58 cognitive biases that screw up everything we do

Ask James Clear, a productivity expert and the author of "Atomic Habits," about this issue and he'll tell you to stop trying to make yourself a better future-seer. It'll never work.

Instead, Clear recommends making something bad happen to you right now as a result of the habit you're trying to quit.

Clear shares the example of a "habit contract": One man had his wife and trainer sign a document that said he would write down all food that he consumed and weigh himself every day. If he didn't do those two things, he would be required to dress up every day and give his trainer $200.

Another way to create immediate, negative consequences is to recruit an accountability partner. You probably don't want them to see you as untrustworthy or lazy, Clear writes, so you'll be more inclined to keep your promises.

Clear's strategies are straightforward enough. But scientists have spent years on this problem and come up with some innovative (if less accessible) potential solutions.

For example, Hal Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management, showed people digitally altered images of themselves that made them look older; the researchers found that those people were more inclined to save for retirement.

Another creative option, cited on MakeUseOf, is to punish a bad habit with a good one. For example, if you find yourself procrastinating doing your work, you might do a few minutes of exercise. That way, you "penalize" yourself and also make it easier to work now that you've gotten your blood flowing.

As for me, I've I'm thinking about finding an accountability partner who knows whether I hit the gym or the couch every day (and isn't afraid to ream me out for it).

Clear puts it simply. "The more immediate the pain, the less likely the behavior," he writes. "There can't be a gap between the action and the consequences."

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